With London’s population expected to grow by around a million and a half to ten million by 2030 radical solutions to more than double the rate of housebuilding in the capital were presented at the Delivering New Housing Models for London half-day conference at New London Architecture on February 12.
David Lunts, Executive Director of Housing and Land at the GLA, presented the Mayor’s latest target of building 42,000 new homes a year for a decade to reduce the backlog of 350,000 homes needed – the actual figure needed is 49,000 year, he added, and others have estimated that the real figure is 60,000 a year or more. ‘We have only built more than that in the 1930s when land and infrastructure was cheap and there were huge swathes of land to build on.’ In 1970, the peak year of postwar housebuilding, only 37,000 homes were built, he added. The average over the past few years has been around 16,000 and the best year was 24,500 in 2004/5.
The eminent planner and Bartlett Professor of Planning and Regeneration at UCL, Sir Peter Hall, said that the only way to meet demand was to look beyond London’s frontiers and even to the very edges of the South East. ‘There is a large gap between aspiration and reality,’ he said. ‘The figures don’t add up. All the new homes can’t all fit into London. They can’t even go next to London because Abercrombie’s postwar plan and the green belt he gave us is sacred.’ The only way to square the circle is by going beyond the “nimby frontier” to places such as Peterborough, Northampton, Rugby and Corby, 80-100 miles away from London but within an hour by train, to build ‘sociable cities’ modelled on exemplar developments in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, added Hall.
Ben Derbyshire, Managing Partner of the housing design consultancy HTA, argued that “densifying” London’s suburbs was the key change needed. “I disagree with Sir Peter Hall. I think we need to look within London and intensify the existing stock.” To reinforce his point, Derbyshire said that if all of the capital had the same density as the borough of Islington, there would be room for 20 million people in the city. ‘You could double the density of 10% of outer London that would account for 20,800 homes a year you need.’
Meanwhile, David Lunts said that London’s Thames Gateway was inevitably still a big part of the answer because there “is still an awful lot of land available for housing development”. New financial models will also be needed. David Lunts said he was satisfied with the £1.25 billion investment plan agreed with central government for 2015-2018 but he was pessimistic about the prospect of “fiscal devolution” so that boroughs could hypothecate their tax takes to build houses.
Examples were given of successful Private Rented Sector (PRS) schemes emerging all over London backed by powerful international pension funds. Marc Vlessing, Chief Executive of Pocket Living said: ‘Equity markets are starting to function better with money from places such as China and we need their equity to build. However the debt market is not functioning well and that is a real problem.’
Sir Peter Hall called for the return of Urban Development Corporations that could release ‘patient capital’ for the front end of development infrastructure to put the money in when none is coming back early on. Most agreed that all attempts to solve this problem will fail without further reform of the planning system. Marc Vlessing put it succinctly: ‘Unless we do something about nimbyism we are not going to solve this problem.’
Damian Arnold, Freelance Journalist